- Until the mid-twentieth century, the nature and consequences of the series of civil conflicts fought in England in the late fifteenth century were not in doubt. These civil wars, which in the nineteenth century were termed the “Wars of the Roses,” were a time of political chaos, economic disorder, social disruption, stagnation, and even moral decline. The royal family was torn apart, and the politically influential classes, the nobility and gentry, destroyed themselves in a series of bloody battles fought to determine who would wear the Crown and control the royal government. The detrimental effects of this prolonged warfare severely damaged not only the English polity, but also the whole of England’s economy and society.Reflecting this accepted view of the late fifteenth century, the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica described the Wars of the Roses as a series of civil wars characterized “by a ferocity and brutality which are practically unknown in the history of English wars before or since” (Pollard, p. 13). Two decades earlier,William Denton, a fellow of Worcester College, had written that the Wars of the Roses caused “the baronage of England” to be “almost extirpated,” and that the common people, although slaughtered in greater numbers “than in any former war on English soil,” suffered even more grievously from the “want, exposure and disease” that the wars engendered. “The standard of morality,” concluded Denton, “could not have been lower than it was at the end of the fifteenth century” (Denton, pp. 118–119). This horrific view of the late fifteenth century, which had slowly but steadily developed throughout the sixteenth century, was largely uncontested for over 300 years, from 1600 to the first decades of the twentieth century.Although the actual term “Wars of the Roses” was unknown in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the concept of the warring roses was familiar to anyone who lived under the rule of the Tudors between 1485 and 1603. Within months of winning the throne in August 1485, Henry VII ordered the blending of the red rose emblem (symbolizing his own Lancastrian lineage) with the white rose emblem (symbolizing his wife’s Yorkist blood) to form the two-color Tudor rose, a new royal emblem to signify for all the peace and unity that Henry’s accession and marriage had brought to England. Because the size and importance of Henry’s accomplishment were directly related to the disorder and destructiveness of what had gone before, histories of the fifteenth century written under the Tudors in the sixteenth century tended to magnify the horrors of the civil war and vilify the actions of Henry’s defeated predecessor, just as that predecessor had sought to justify his own usurpation by denouncing the actions of those who had ruled before him. In Titulus Regius, the parliamentary declaration of his title to the throne, Richard III had listed in lurid detail the failings of his brother’s administration, which, the document concluded, had brought “great sorrow and heaviness [to] all true Englishmen.” And Edward IV, in 1461, had portrayed his seizure of the Crown as making right the terrible crime “against God’s law [and] man’s liegance” committed by the Lancastrians when they deposed Richard II in 1399 (Pollard, pp. 8, 9).By the mid-sixteenth century, the propaganda of a succession of usurpers of the English Crown had become the commonly accepted framework for explaining the course and consequences of fifteenth-century English history. Developed by such early Tudor historians as Sir Thomas More in his History of King Richard III (c.1513) and Polydore Vergil in his Anglica Historia (1534), the outlines of this framework were picked up and widely disseminated by Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York (1548), a chronicle that by its very title proclaimed the benefits of Tudor rule. For Hall, the Wars of the Roses encompassed not only the battles fought between the 1450s and the 1480s, but the entire sweep of English history from 1399 to 1485, a period defined by the deposition of a rightful king, the divine punishment of the whole realm for this unlawful act, and the restoration of divine order and favor as symbolized by the accession of Henry VIII, a descendant of both warring houses. Such were the “misery . . .murder and . . . execrable plagues” that England had suffered before Henry VII that Hall wrote, “my wit cannot comprehend nor my tongue declare neither yet my pen fully set forth” all the terrible consequences of that time (Ellis, p. 1). In 1561, at the start of the reign of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, Sir Thomas Smith wrote a pamphlet that elaborated on what Hall could not describe. According to Smith, the civil wars of the fifteenth century were a time when “blood pursued blood and ensued blood till all the realm was brought to great confusion” and England in the last years of Henry VI “was almost a very chaos” (Aston, pp. 282–283). Thus, the Elizabethans, then some seventy years removed from the civil wars, and well aware of the political upheavals that disturbed their own times, could be secure in the knowledge that their troubles in no way approached the “chaos” that had reigned before Henry VII.This notion of chaos before the coming of the Tudors was reinforced in the sixteenth century by the spread of humanism, a movement that saw the Middle Ages as a long barren period standing between the glorious achievements of the classical world and the revival of classical learning in contemporary times. Henry VII’s accession was well suited to serve as the initiating event of this classical renewal, and the Wars of the Roses served equally well as the period of most intense darkness before the humanist dawn. Thus, the humanist view of the Middle Ages fit well with the official view of the fifteenth century being developed by Tudor propaganda and historiography. Humanism also encouraged the writing of English history and the use of that history as a moral yardstick for critiquing contemporary politics and society. And no period was more fraught with moral lessons than the Wars of the Roses.In the 1590s,William Shakespeare, making use of Holinshed’s Chronicles and other histories deriving from Hall, More, and other early Tudor sources, applied his genius to the rapidly solidifying historiography of the Wars of the Roses. Basing no less than eight plays on fifteenth-century English history, Shakespeare dramatized, sharpened, and darkened the conventional view of the period, and explored broader themes that connected it to the political concerns of his own times. The plays, from Richard II to Richard III, presented a unified explanation of the fifteenth century that warned anyone in their Elizabethan audiences to refrain from active opposition to the lawful monarch, lest the horrors of the Wars of the Roses descend again upon England. By 1600, few English subjects questioned that the fifteenthcentury civil wars were a time of political, social, and economic chaos unleashed by the deposition of one king in 1399 and ended by the accession of another in 1485. Except for occasional attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III, such as the efforts of Sir George Buck in the seventeenth century, Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century, and Caroline Halsted in the nineteenth century, the traditional view of the Wars of the Roses continued unchallenged almost into the twentieth century. By encouraging the publication and study of fifteenth-century documents, whether public records or private papers, the development of modern historical research in the mid-nineteenth century confirmed the prevailing interpretation of the period. The Paston Letters, which first became available in an edition published between 1787 and 1823, and the ongoing publications of the Deputy Keeper of Public Records and the Camden Society provided historians with an accumulating mass of evidence that the fifteenth century had indeed been a time of turbulence and disorder. Stories of corruption, violence, and lawlessness emerged from such sources as the records of the Court of King’s Bench and the proceedings of royal councils and local commissions. Such evidence convinced the medieval historian Bishop William Stubbs “that all that was good and great in [late medieval life] was languishing even unto death” (Stubbs, p. 632) and persuaded Charles Plummer, as he wrote in the introduction to his edition of Sir John Fortescue’s Governance of England, that the scourge of a social system he called “bastard feudalism” was responsible for a total breakdown of law and order in late fifteenth-century England.However, certain records seemed to tell another story, and a few historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to cautiously suggest that perhaps the Wars of the Roses had not been as widely disruptive as had been thought. In 1874, in his Short History of the English People, J. R. Green agreed that there were few periods in English history “from which we turn with such weariness and disgust as from the Wars of the Roses” (Green, p. 288), but he also proposed that the worst aspects of the conflict were largely confined to the nobility and their retainers. The merchants of the towns and the peasants of the countryside suffered less from the civil wars because they largely avoided participation in them. In 1886, Thorold Rogers, thanks to his detailed study of fifteenth- century economic documents, supported Green’s dissent by declaring that the agricultural classes “must have had only a transient and languid interest in the faction fight” (Rogers, p. 240), for the evidence was that the fifteenth century was for them a period of general prosperity. In 1923, C. L. Kingsford, drawing upon the Stonor family archives and other legal documents, expanded this notion by arguing that the Wars of the Roses were not nearly as destructive as had been thought, and that many members of the fifteenth-century gentry, such as the Stonors, had thrived, while taking little or no part in the conflict.These first stirrings of revisionism became a transforming movement through the scholarship of K. B. McFarlane, who, for more than thirty years before his death in 1966, conducted studies that ranged widely over the late medieval period. McFarlane refuted Plummer’s thesis that bastard feudalism was a structurally corrupt social system and the root cause of the disorder and lawlessness that plagued fifteenth-century society. Bastard feudalism, argued McFarlane, was a generally effective response to the needs of late medieval society and the basis of English political interaction from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, not simply an aberration of the late fifteenth century. McFarlane also believed that the disorder caused by the Wars of the Roses was limited and arose mainly from the inability of Henry VI to function effectively. Although he published little on the civil wars themselves, McFarlane inspired through his teaching a great many historians who thoroughly reinvigorated and transformed the study of the Wars of the Roses after 1960. By revising, expanding, and refining McFarlane’s basic ideas, a host of scholars working in the last third of the twentieth century questioned not only the effects of the Wars of the Roses, but their causes and their chronology. In the 1970s, J. R. Lander and Charles Ross both concluded that the Wars of the Roses saw little real fighting, caused little real destruction, and had little real effect on trade and agriculture. Ross declared that the late fifteenth century supported a “rich, varied and vigorous civilization [that] . . .was a product of political violence which did nothing to hinder its steady development” (Ross, p. 176). By the early 1980s, when John Gillingham described fifteenth-century England as “a society organized for peace” and “the most peaceful country in Europe (Gillingham, pp. 14, 15), some historians had taken the traditional view to the opposite extreme and argued that the Wars of the Roses were hardly wars at all and had exercised almost no influence on most aspects of fifteenth-century society. Although this view has been much revised and largely rejected, the received tradition of a horrific series of devastating civil wars has also been largely dismissed.Stripped of the certainty of the past, the Wars of the Roses are currently among the most controversial events in English political history. Most historians now agree that the term “Wars of the Roses,” no matter how unsatisfactory it may be in any number of ways, can be used to describe a period of about four decades in the second half of the fifteenth century during which England experienced ongoing political instability and intermittent open warfare. Beyond that, historians working at the start of the twenty-first century are in disagreement over such fundamental issues as when these periods of warfare started and ended, and even over how many such wars actually occurred.McFarlane described three wars, covering the years 1450–1464, 1464–1471, and 1483– 1487, while John Gillingham identified three wars dated 1455–1464, 1469–1471, and 1483–1487. Ross talked about three periods of warfare, but only two wars, arguing that the conflicts of 1460–1464 and 1469–1471 were two parts of the one war between Lancaster and York, while the 1483–1487 episode was really a separate struggle between York and Tudor. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Anthony Goodman characterized the Wars of the Roses as merely a related series of military eruptions occurring between 1452 and 1497, whereas in the 1990s Christine Carpenter sought to understand the civil wars within the broader context of a period running from the commencement of the personal rule of Henry VI in 1437 to the peaceful accession of Henry VIII in 1509. As these widely differing views illustrate, the study and interpretation of the Wars of the Roses is today one of the most engaging and dynamic subfields in English history.
Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. John A.Wagner. 2001.
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